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Publishing the papers of the U.S. founders

More than a half century ago, the Congress committed to producing definitive editions of the papers of the American founders – Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin in particular.  The first volume (which happened to be volume one of the Jefferson papers) was published in 1950, while Harry Truman was president.  Since then only the Hamilton papers have been completed.  As Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) put it in congressional hearings held last February:

According to the National Historic Publication and Records Commission [NHPRC], the papers of Thomas Jefferson will not be completed until 2025, the Washington papers in 2023, the papers of Franklin and Madison in 2030, and the Adams papers in 2050.  That is a hundred years after the projects began.  We spent nearly $30 million in taxpayer dollars in Federal taxpayer projects, and it is estimates another $60 million in combined public and private money is going in here.  One volume of the Hamilton papers costs $180.  The price for the complete 26-volume set of the papers is around $2,600.  So… only a few libraries [have] one volume of the papers, and only six percent [have] more than one volume.

The challenge, of course, is that everyone wants these collections, which have been often described as American Scripture, to be academically accurate, definitively comprehensive, and available yesterday.  But the imperatives of accuracy and speed work at cross purposes.  Some sense of why it takes so long to pull together and confirm the impossibly numerous details was conveyed in a story told by the historian David McCullough, who testified at the hearings.  McCullough, now at work on a Jefferson project, wanted to know the exact contents of the eighty or so crates Jefferson shipped back to Virginia while he was doing diplomatic work in France, information he rightly felt might convey some sense of Jefferson’s thinking.  The answer was to be found in volume 18 of the published papers, “the whole sum total in a footnote that runs nearly six pages in small type.”  McCullough has proposed that the national investment in the work of editing be doubled, so that the papers can be published more speedily but at no loss of historical quality.

The complications of doing this work are legion.  The papers of contemporary presidents are routinely collected and published soon after administrations end, but it wasn’t until 1934 and the founding of the National Historical Publications Commission, the precursor to today’s NHPRC, that a serious effort was made to comprehensively collect 18th century documentation, often scattered in private collections.  Although 216 volumes have now been published and praised, the frustration of the anticipated 2049 completion date has resulted in a drumbeat of criticism.  Private funding has been mobilized (the Pew Charitable Trust was the main original funder and has been persistent in directing funds over the years, including a failed 2000 challenge grant of $10 million – more on that soon), and the pace of publication is accelerating, but these final deadlines remain far off.

Rebecca Rimel, president of Pew, argues that there has been too little accountability for funds already spent – “there has never been a full accounting of the Founding Fathers Project.  There has been a lack of performance metrics” able to measure progress over time, she argues (11).  Pew has a special reason for frustration because they made the funding they coordinated contingent on production of such information, and they say it has never been forthcoming.  The criticism was reiterated in a more particular way by Deanna Marcum of the Library of Congress, who expressed the concern that university project work is spending too much of the funding to float graduate student stipends and on connected graduate programs, sometimes at the expense of faster methods of completion (37).  Stanley Katz has responded to this critique by noting that the expenditures of the projects are held tightly accountable to the reporting processes at NHPRC and NEH, in ways no different than any other funded project supported by those agencies.

The scholarly challenges of doing this work are also enormous.  To assure that consistently high standards of annotation are used in all the collections, very complex protocols of verification and citation are in place.  When one hears that a given project may “only” be producing one or two new volumes a year, it is easy to forget that each of these volumes may run to 800 pages with a large number of small print footnotes, and the Washington papers alone run to 27,347 pages.  Ralph Ketcham, an emeritus historian at Syracuse University who has spent his entire career on these projects (first working on Franklin and now on Madison), noted that the longevity of many of the Founders adds additional challenges – “It’s not surprising,” he noted, “that Alexander Hamilton’s papers are the only ones that have been completed.  The chief editor of the Hamilton papers, Cy Surrett, emphasized long ago that he thought he might dedicate his volumes to Aaron Burr, who made completion of the task possible” (14).  Sometimes this longevity results in vast collections of material – if the microfilmed papers connecting to the Adams papers were stretched out (the collection includes the presidential papers but also the materials produced by Henry and Charles Francis Adams) it would extend more than five miles long (McCollough, pg. 20).  The actual papers, when not in the custodial care of the Library of Congress, have to be transcribed and proofread on-site at collections often unwilling to let them physically travel.  To take just one example, the Jefferson papers are geographically dispersed over 100 different global depositories (Katz, pg. 18).

Fundraising has always been a challenge despite recent Congressional support.  The projects were intended from the outset to be funded privately, although public funds have also been allocated (the National Endowment for the Humanities started providing project grants in 1994).  Stanley Katz, a Princeton professor and former president of the Organization of American Historians, chairs NHPRC’s fundraising operation, whose major purpose is to do fundraising for all the Founders projects with the goal of freeing scholars at work on annotation from that burden, and although the organization has raised millions, many more are needed.  Although federal funding was restored after considerable lobbying, last year’s Bush budget proposal recommended zeroing out the NHPRC altogether.  And the story of the finally failed Pew matching grant, which imposed a probably impossible challenge, is also instructive:  Pew (this according to Katz, pg. 28) gave Founding Fathers Papers, Inc., nine months to come up with the requisite 3-to-1, $30 million match.  When they couldn’t raise that amount of money so quickly, the Pew match was withdrawn.  The model of creating so-called “wasting funds” (large endowments designed to spend down to zero with the completion of a project) makes sense (the strategy was used to complete the Woodrow Wilson papers and is a solution to the threats posed by funding uncertainty), and the Pew impulse to put tight timeframes on creating such funds also makes sense.  But too optimistically calibrated, overly-fast timetables can produce wasted effort and final funding failure.

Katz has also warned against the temptation of thinking the projects can simply be scaled up to speed publication:  “These are rather extraordinary works of scholarship.  This a craft skill, this is not an industrial skill.  It can’t be scaled up in the way that industrial skills can” (12).  Progress has been expedited by splitting up projects so that different parts can be simultaneously worked on; this is the strategy now in use with the Jefferson and Madison papers.   But because this is the case for most of the series in process, the marginal possibilities for accelerating production are not likely as great as one might imagine.

A common refrain is to call attention to the presumed absurdity of continuing the commitment to expensive hard copy printing, when many imagine the papers could be scanned, thrown up on the Worldwide Web, and annotated perhaps by the collaborative wikipedia-type work of a preselected group of scholars.  In fact, this is already well underway, though the new commitments add major new work to existing teams.  Allen Weinstein, the U.S. Archivist, has committed to online dissemination, and digital commitments go back all the way to 1988, when agreements were made with the Packard Humanities Institute.  Packard continues to plug away along with the University of Virginia Press (the electronic imprint is called Rotunda).  The University of Virginia work also received major support from the the Mellon Foundation.  Rotunda, which is receiving no public funds for its work (31), has already posted the papers of Washington and Dolley Madison, with Adams, Jefferson, Ratification, and James Madison papers slated for online publication by the end of 2009.

But that solution, for anyone who has struggled to put up a respectable website, is a lot more complicated than it may seem.  For one thing, unlike the recent NEH initiative to digitize American historical newspapers, which can be electronically scanned, the handwritten papers of the founders have to be keyed in by hand and then verified one at a time, an exceptionally labor-intensive process.  The publication arrangements that have been made with major university presses makes it a challenge to place unannotated material on a website, which would seriously subvert the investments those presses have made in projects in anticipation of a return on investment with publication.  For another, nationally-sanctioned authoritative editions need to be handled with great care and with sensitivity to the fast changing environments of digital presentation, so that money will not be wasted investing in formats that will soon be judged unworthy of the material.  Still, the Library of Congress, which has proprietary control over many of the materials, has already begun significant digitization connected with its American Memory Project (e.g., all the Washington, Jefferson, and Madison papers are available online).  Their position is that they can do the job given more money.

And thus the brilliant, historically incomparable Founding papers annotations roll out, one expensive volume at a time, inexorably researched and in a seemingly never-ending quest for financial support, so that their educational potential for scholars, citizens, and students will not be delayed for yet another half century.

SOURCE:  The Founding Fathers’ Papers:  Ensuring Public Access to Our National Treasures, Hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, S. Hrg. 110-334 (Serial No. J-110-72), 7 February 2008.

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